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A Fundamental Look at Cultural Diversity and the Online Classroom

By Karen Milheim /

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To fully understand culture—and its significance and influence in online courses, in particular—is quite a complex undertaking.  The goal of this article is to provide a general overview of the topic and to encourage continued exploration of instructional and design strategies relevant to cultural diversity in online learning. The broader discourse focused on cultural diversity and education considers areas such as content, pedagogy, and knowledge construction, in light of a student's race, gender, country of origin, language (among other factors) and their impact on education [1].  No doubt, a student's cultural background is an important part of this conversation. Not only does culture have an impact on the overall classroom experience, it has been shown to affect learning, motivation, and satisfaction in a course.

Along these lines, studies comparing differences in areas related to learning among students from different cultural backgrounds reveal the importance of considering student viewpoints towards power structures in the classroom (i.e., the role of the instructor versus the role of the student), how information is processed, subject matter, and the interpretation of learning scales, among other areas [2].  To better understand how a student's cultural background might manifest itself in a virtual learning environment, it is important to think about the unique landscape of the online course. Through closer examination, this article considers several major pedagogical areas impacted by students' cultural backgrounds and further describes ways instructional professionals can work towards improving the online learning experience for culturally diverse student groups.

Communication and Interactions

One of the most predominant differences between online and traditional courses lies in how students and faculty interact in the classroom. Not only does the online classroom remove physical, synchronous presence from the learning community, it regularly shifts the bulk of communications to written exchanges.  Often, the instructor, who guides the discussion and elicits feedback, facilitates these forums. In addition, instructors normally provide feedback in writing as well, using embedded course tools (e.g., areas for grading notes and comments) to support numeric scoring. Also, in addition to the online course platform (e.g., Blackboard, Moodle), the learning community can engage outside of the classroom via blogs, social media, and other tools to support instruction and engage students. Again, these environments are normally driven by text, with little emphasis on live or verbal exchanges.

Emphasis on the written word, whether in communication forums or via other platforms, creates potential issues related to the interpretation of content, particularly for students whose first language is not English. For example, as Hyland (2013) discovered, the interpretation of written feedback given to English Language Learners (ELL) may have broader implications [3]. Students, particularly ELL students, tend to look for hidden messages in feedback and may often decipher it differently from the original intent of the instructor [3]. It is vital to consider the potential that interpretation (or misinterpretation) of written forums or feedback might have in the online course.

A student does not necessarily have to be an English language learner for their culture to influence their interpretation or understanding of the meaning of written text within a course.  Culture can impact the dynamics of the exchanges as well. Cultural norms, which can be defined as “common beliefs, expectations, and practices” of a society [4], may impact how and when students respond to questions, including their perceived roles in a forum. Students from Western cultures, for example, are more apt to view the instructor as a facilitator, rather than non-Western students whose cultural norm is to view the instructor as more authoritative in nature.

Course design

The aesthetics of a course, and how students perceive the design, are critical to the learning experience. To better understand how design relates to experience, one area to consider is visual culture. Fundamentally, the term visual culture refers to how people see and interpret images, art, photography, movies, and so on. Two examples of Japanese visual culture are manga and anime: forms of media that are clearly identifiable with the culture of Japan.  So, what does visual culture mean with respect to online learning? Visual culture, as Knight, Gunawardena, Barberà, and Aydin (2014) note, impacts how students interpret photos and other course elements [5].  Beyond images and symbols, research has shown that even color spectrums vary among cultures, potentially impacting the student experience [6].

To further illustrate, take a moment to conduct several image searches for the term "police officer," but include a country name after the phrase (so, for example, "police officer in India" or "police officer in China"). While you may see similarities among the images, there are unique characteristics that clearly differentiate the way people from these respective countries might envision a police officer. With this in mind, it is important to carefully consider cultural perceptions and how they might impact the selection of graphics or images for a course. In other words, cultural background and norms impact how students interpret visual course content.

Acknowledging and Understanding Cultural Differences

It would be unreasonable to suggest the potential issues and challenges described above can be completely anticipated and eliminated from a course. Also, it is important to point out that there is a much deeper body of literature focused on this, and related areas. The goal of this article is to provide an introduction to the topic, so designers, faculty, and other instructional professionals can begin to move towards providing culturally responsive online courses.    

By acknowledging that culture does, in fact, influence learning is an important step in designing for and instructing a culturally diverse student body. This might mean identifying cultural cues in discussion, or framing questions during discussions that elicit examples that are culturally relevant. By doing so, this will set the tone for a safe space in the classroom where students might feel more open to sharing their experiences, particularly with respect to viewpoints shaped by their individual culture [7]. For instructional designers in particular, it is important to remain aware of relevant instructional design models and frameworks that are culturally inclusive and attentive to some of the overarching issues described earlier in this article.  Along these lines, models such as the Wisdom Communities Instructional Design Model offer a framework for orienting and engaging students in a diverse learning community [8].


Understanding the unique differences between online and traditional classroom environments, and how culture manifests itself within each setting, can help shape a positive educational experience for students. At a fundamental level, anticipating the challenges that learners may experience with respect to areas such as classroom dynamics, requirements for participation, comprehension of course themes, and interpretation of course resources and design, can help support students through thoughtful course design and instruction.  Also, beyond the practitioner level, organizations should encourage more culturally inclusive ways of thinking to help support faculty and staff development as well.

With the continued growth of the global, online classroom, it is important to continue the conversation related to better understanding and supporting students from diverse cultures. This will help support sustained improvement of online course design and facilitation, while benefitting students and their learning.


Suggested Reading:

In addition to the reference list below, there are several current books and articles that further explore culture in online higher education. These include:

Arpaci, I. (2015). A comparative study of the effects of cultural differences on the adoption of mobile learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 46(4), 699-712.

Gunawardena, C. (2013). Culture and Online Distance Learning. Handbook of Distance Education. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge.

Liu, X., Liu, S., Lee, S., & Magjuka, R. J. (2010). Cultural Differences in Online Learning: International Student Perceptions. Educational Technology & Society, 13(3), 177-188.



[1]Banks, J. A. (2016). Cultural Diversity and Education: Foundations, Curriculum, and Teaching (6th ed.) New York: Routledge.

[2] Marambe, K.N., Vermunt, J.D., & Boshuizen, H.P.A. (2012). A cross-cultural comparison of student learning patterns in higher education. Higher Education, 64(3), 299-316.

[3] Hyland, K. L. (2013). Student perceptions of hidden messages in teacher written feedback. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 39(3), 180-187.

[4] Lehman, D. R., Chiu, C., & Schaller, M. (2004). Psychology and Culture. Annual Review of Psychology, 55, 689-714.

[5] Knight, E., Gunawardena, C. N., Barberà, E., & Aydin, C. H. (2014). International Interpretations of Icons and Images Used in North American academic websites. In In I. Jun & C.N. Gunawardena (Eds). Culture and Online Learning: Global Perspectives and Research (p. 149-160). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

[6] Rogers, P. C., Graham, C. R., & Mayes, C. T. (2007). Cultural competence and instructional design: Exploration research into the delivery of online instruction cross-culturally. Educational Technology Research and Development, 55(2), 197-217.

[7] Milheim, K. L. (2014). Facilitation Across Cultures in the Online Classroom. International Journal of Learning, Teaching, and Educational Research, 5(1), 1-11.

[8] Gunawardena, C.N., Ortegano-Layne, L., Carabajal, K., Frechette, C., Lindermann, K., & Jennings, B. (2006). New Model, New Strategies: Instructional Design for Building Online Wisdom Communities. Distance Education, 27(2), 217-232.


About the Author

Karen Milheim, Ed.D., is a contributing faculty member in the Riley College of Education and Leadership at Walden University. Her research focuses on the intersection of cultural differences, teaching, learning, and the virtual classroom.

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